Sunday, October 17, 2010

Did Gutenburg Worry about Making Artists Redefine Themselves?

I just read this fabulous article on the Pictorialists, the rise of photography to the status of an art (which, by the way, I discussed in my first blog post), and the way Hipstamatic and other apps introduced for the iPhone recently have tried to recreate that movement's feel. The article did a great job of explaining how Pictorialism came about organically as a reaction to technological advances at the time.

Originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and championed in America by Alfred Stieglitz, Pictorialism was a movement in the art world that placed value on hazy, dreamlike photos which emphasized light and mood more than actual readable scenes. It's often wrongly assumed that photos from this time period look so different from today's ultra-sharp images because the artists were limited by the technology available to them. In fact, it's quite the opposite; with Kodak's release of the first handheld camera for amateurs, the technology needed to make high-quality narrative photographs had just become all too available. It was no longer enough for professional photographers -- already working hard to earn the art world's respect -- to own and know how to operate complex photographic equipment. Thus, photographers who wanted to stand out as artists in a field now overrun with "snapshooters" began tweaking photography to look as similar as possible to what was already considered a serious art: painting.

Reading about Pictorialism in The Atlantic, I couldn't help but compare the cultural changes that photographers faced at that time with the cultural changes that publishers and writers face today. With the popularity of digital technology like the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad and of e-publishing in general, publication of a sort is available to more writers now than ever. Anyone with a bit of design sense and some familiarity with technology can create e-books and print-on-demand books. And with the increasingly common creation of new initiatives and imprints like Kindle Singles and Odyssey Editions, it seems that the variety of works and writers hitting your e-bookstore of choice is set to get more varied by the day. Never has publication been so accessible to the amateur writer.

That said, there are some definite differences between our situation as writers, readers and publishers today and the situation of those early-20th-century photographers: most notably, the fact that writing was long ago established as an art form. If you ignore the fact that many genres and target audiences still fight to be considered legitimate literature, you could say that we, unlike Stieglitz, don't have to try to romance the art world in order to prove that we really are artists.

Still, I think that most artists do try to set themselves apart from the masses, and it sure seems that "the masses" just got a whole lot more massive. What do you think? Is publication by an established house still enough to offer the kind of status artists often seek? Or, will writers trying to establish themselves as artists have to work harder to separate themselves from the masses in the greater world of publishing? Leaving aside nay-saying about the supposed shortcomings of web content, do you think literary writing is going to change as a reaction to technology? Where are we going to see those changes -- in style, in format, in content, or somewhere altogether different? Please, Writer Friends, do enlighten me!


  1. Bear with me, please, this could be a bit rambling.

    As someone who does write and hopes one day to have my work published, I do have to say a market inundated already with countless other authors is not just intimidating, it's downright discouraging. While I'm not sure going through a publishing house confers status (it depends largely, I think, on the house in question), it is regarded as a more professional method of being recognized. It also confers certain benefits like distribution and the potential for advertising. Not every book is advertised, obviously, but taking a work to a publishing house still seems to promise more legitimacy. The very fact of having gone through the publishing process with an established house implies the work has some external value or the house wouldn't have bothered with the manuscript in the first place.

    However, the flip side to that is the necessity of standing out as an author. With the sheer volume of books in existence, most plots have been done and done again and done again and so forth. Is it impossible to produce an original storyline? No. Is it difficult? Very. To me, that says the plot is no longer the selling attribute. (I am not in publishing and could well be wrong. This is all from an outsider perspective.) In the absence of selling your plot, you have to sell style and character development. The plot is still an essential story element, but I feel it's not enough to have a solid plot and decent writing that maybe needs a little refining. Your writing has to stand out, your voice, your characters' voices. In order to get recognized through established channels, you, the author, must present a more finished work before the publishing process has even begun.

    I don't believe that e-publishing/print-on-demand means a work has no merit. I've bought books that are print-on-demand before and found them to be no better and no worse than what you'd find on a store shelf. Some were good, or great, and some were more average. I feel that if an author cares about his/her book, editor or no, he/she will do everything possible to craft something good. I don't honestly believe anyone sets out to be mediocre. But, I also feel it is an easier thing to accomplish with help.

    So. I'll try to relate what I've rambled about back to your original questions.

    I definitely agree the masses have become more massive. I feel that to some extent that fact confers more status to authors who do managed to be published by a house, but I also feel the sheer volume of work forces authors to work harder to establish themselves. I think we'll see a sharp rise in the number of books published electronically in the same way photos have become common place but that much as those pursuing art status for photography had to differentiate themselves from anyone with a camera, authors will have to differentiate themselves from anyone with a computer.

    I hope that the rise of e-publishing might help open up new possibilities for methods of story-telling, though. One of the largest flaws with the publishing industry as I see it is the tendency to homogenize the works chosen. The adventurer in me says, "Do you know what kind of crazy ideas will make it to distribution because of that freedom?" but the cynic in me says, "Do you know how many tropes your going to have to dig through to find those crazy ideas?"

    I'm not sure how well I actually addressed the subject matter but it did get me thinking.

  2. Thanks for the long and really well thought-out response, Robyn! I think you're right on target in a lot of your points about where the industry is today. Writers (especially new writers) definitely are having to work harder and harder to convince publishers to take a risk and publish them. Though this isn't the case with every imprint, there are many imprints in existence right now for which strong voice and style are crucial (though I think that new or very marketable plot ideas are also just as important right now -- case in point being the many, many paranormal romances being snapped up right now). I think that what's unique to this time is the importance of being the complete package: both an exciting, unique plot and a powerful writerly voice (I'm thinking of Suzanne Collins here). But that's another tangent. And I definitely think that publishing has become faster-paced in a way that makes the industry demand a more clean-cut project at the point of submission.

    I really appreciate your comments about the possibility for innovation inherent in e-publishing. The publishing world does work on a business model, and as such makes decisions based on what is proven to sell; for every artistic risk a house takes by publishing avant-garde work or unknown writers, it must find a way to fund that project through more sure sales. A lot of doors have closed in the mainstream industry because profit margins have been too small in certain areas, and a more do-it-yourself attitude towards e-publication could re-open them. There's already talk of a resurgence in literary magazines, and perhaps we'll see more novellas, poems and short stories entering the mainstream. How cool would that be?

    I wonder -- are you leaning towards the idea that a lot of the true artists will actually start to surface outside of the mainstream publishing world?